The following episode contains a discussion of sexual violence. Listeners who might be sensitive to such topics, please use discretion. If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual violence, you can seek safe and confidential help by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. That’s 800-656-4673.
The #MeToo movement. It’s a huge part of what’s happening around the world, right now, and in nearly every facet of society. Women the world over are speaking up about their experiences with abuse, inequality, and injustices, and stepping up to make a difference and-- with luck, time, and hope-- some change to go along with it. Because we all know that things have been wrong for a very, very long time. There haven’t been many avenues up to this point for women to make their voices heard, to fight against systems of dominance, repression. But even in the midst of the most trying circumstances and the most harrowing life events, some have been able to stand out and make a lasting statement about their pain, their history, and their wishes for retribution. One of the best examples of this just happened to be completed in oil paint upon a huge six-foot canvas. Now that’s quite the statement.
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Today, we are continuing our all-new season of episodes dissecting single works of art that shook their contemporary worlds with one of the bloodiest and most gruesome works of the Baroque period, and it’s all about womanly wrath and awesome revenge: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. This is the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in July of 1593 in Rome, as the eldest child of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and his wife, Prudentia Montone. Like many of the female artists that we’ve discussed in the ArtCurious Podcast in the past-- specifically Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Sofonisba Anguissola, in episodes 3, 37, and 20, respectively--Artemisia had art-related opportunities that were often off-limits for other women and girls of her time period, simply because she had a dad who was an artist and who was happy to inculcate his daughter in the ways of art. And so, alongside her younger brothers, she began painting in her father’s workshop at a very early age, and her father, Orazio, recognized her talent quickly-- and so he capitalized upon it. Orazio decided to give her one-on-one lessons in drawing, color mixing, and painting and by the time she turned nineteen, he had begun boasting around town of his daughter’s “professional” artistic ability, one inspired by another local art great rolling around Rome during this period-- famed baroque artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known to us simply as Caravaggio. Orazio and Caravaggio were close friends, and it is entirely probable that Artemisia herself met--and possibly even worked-- with Caravaggio at some point during her own artistic development. She admired and imitated his stark lighting, his dark and dense color palette, and his choice of Biblical subject matter, which, as we’ll see, plays a key role in our discussion today. But it wasn’t Caravaggio himself that would end up altering Artemisia Gentileschi’s life forever. Instead, it was an entirely different artist who would have a long-lasting effect on her and would directly influence her most famous--and infamous--painting.
It all happened before Artemisia was even out of her teen years. When she was just seventeen years old, Orazio hired a new painter to work under his wing, assisting Orazio directly in his commissions and, even more crucially, acting as a painting tutor to Artemisia herself. This man was Agostino Tassi, a man who was a highly-rated trompe l’oeil--or illusionistic--painter in Rome at the time, but whose works are considered fairly unimportant today. But at the time, he was kinda the man, and Artemisia may have been excited that she had the ability to work so closely with him. But she had no idea that she was about to get far, far too close to Tassi, and without her permission.
It all seemed so simple, and so innocent, at the very beginning. On one fateful day in 1611, Artemisia was hanging out in her bedroom when she noticed Agostino Tassi lingering near her doorway. When she no doubt said hello, and questioned his presence there, he replied that he was simply admiring a painting on the wall near her bedroom. But very quickly after that, things escalated. According to Artemisia herself, Tassi forced himself into her room and came onto her, making direct and unwanted offers of sex. When she balked, Tassi grew desperate, and wasn’t about to let his opportunity slip away. I’ll let Artemisia Gentileschi’s voice continue the narrative. About the next moments, Artemisia recounted, quote, “He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming.” Unquote. And with that, Tassi proceeded to rape her. She continued, quote, “I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth I couldn't cry out. However, I tried to scream as best I could. I scratched his face, and pulled his hair and, before he penetrated me again, I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh.” unquote. But she couldn’t stop him. After Tassi finally let her go, Artemisia rushed to a nearby drawer and pulled out a knife, screaming to Tassi, quote, “I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me,” and he basically mocked her by opening up his coat and proclaiming, quote, “Here I am,” as if he was right there, available to be attacked. Artemisia did move ahead and attempted to attack Tassi, but he shielded himself, sustaining only a minor wound. If Tassi hadn’t protected himself, Artemisia noted that she might very well have killed him.
What happened next is terrible in its own right. Distraught at the assault she just experienced, Artemisia was crying and hysterical, and Tassi attempted to settle her down. How did he do this? He grabbed her hand and promised to marry her. Never mind that he was already married, but that’s another tale altogether. With this promise, Artemisia did find herself pacified, so much so that she was able to continue a physical relationship with her assailant. As she later noted, quote, “I felt calmer, and with this promise he induced me later on to yield lovingly, many times, to his desires, since many times he has also reconfirmed this promise to me.” Unquote. Artemisia was young, very young, and she was assaulted and most likely not thinking clearly due to the shock of the circumstance, and she assumed that Tassi was telling the truth when he promised to make-good on the loss of her virginity by making her a respectable wife. Alas, though, he never did. And with this broken promise, in came Orazio Gentileschi to the rescue, filing a charge in 1612 that Agostino Tassi raped his daughter months prior. And with that began another nightmarish phase in Artemisia’s life as she endured a seven-month-long court battle that put Artemisia herself on trial practically as much as Tassi.
The trial of Agostino Tassi lasted a grueling seven months and included hundreds of hours of witness examinations and testimonies from friends, tenants, and artists to build a picture of the Gentileschi household and Artemisia’s relationship with Tassi himself. In the court transcripts, Artemisia was depicted as a shy teenager who rarely left the house, while Tassi was painted as possibly even worse than he actually was. Exhibit A: several testimonies accused him of murdering his wife years before, something which Tassi did not do but he still made little attempt to disprove. This insouciant attitude was also directed at the rape charges, which he similarly did not attempt to deny. That being said, the trial still dragged on, and with it was dragged Artemisia herself. For example, to ensure that she was being truthful in her accusations, the judge ordered the use of a torture device called a sybille, wherein her fingers were tightly tied with ropes and pulled together painfully— the idea being that if someone was lying, they wouldn’t want to subject themselves to such pain. But Artemisia Gentileschi remained defiant as she stared down her rapist who sat across the courtroom from her. She repeated her testimony again and again as court officials pulled the ropes tighter. Eventually, the judge found her to be honest and found Tassi guilty of his crime. He was sentenced to five years as a galley slave.
But here’s an infuriating part: Agostino Tassi never served any time. He was a highly sought-after artist, after all, and one of his main clients was Pope Innocent the 10th, who once described Tassi as one of the only men who had never disappointed him. Innocent, too, noted that he appreciated the fact that Tassi had embraced his sinful acts and had not attempted to deny his wrongdoings. That was grace. And thus, Innocent came to Tassi’s rescue and he kept his status as a free man, enjoying a long career in Rome while Artemisia Gentileschi fled Rome two days after the trial ended and relocated (purportedly for marriage purposes), to Florence.
All of the direct quotations I shared from Artemisia, especially pertaining to the actual recounting of the events of the attack, are part of the public documentation of what followed from the trial of Agostino Tassi, and all are available to be read and discussed-- I got my transcription from art historian Mary Garrard’s 1989 masterpiece on Artemisia herself. It’s hard to read. It’s probably, in many ways, even harder to hear someone like me narrate out loud. But I think it’s important to share the words from a victim or survivor, and to hear their testimony of the wrongs that were done to their minds and their bodies. And so, though this has been more graphic in its telling than most ArtCurious episodes, I feel strongly that sharing this knowledge will lead to a greater understanding--and even appreciation-- of Artemisia's masterwork-- her Judith Slaying Holofernes, completed around 1620. But even today, this isn’t an easy or pretty work of art to behold, and its explicit ties to Artemisia’s violent assault come to light up next— right after this break.
Welcome back to ArtCurious.
After Artemisia’s trial against Agostino Tassi was completed, she moved quickly to Florence, where she enjoyed significant success in the arts, even attaining a milestone when she became the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). Surviving letters from this period record her successes and relationships within the Florentine artistic community, as she worked diligently to produce commissioned paintings. But there was one work that she began fairly early into her sojourn in Florence— a painting that challenged her, flummoxed her, and called her back repeatedly, as she worked on it repeatedly over the course of 7 years.
The subject matter that Artemisia Gentileschi chose in her most famous painting was a tale that was millennia old, one that had been portrayed countless times by many artists before her, including in an iteration made famous by her father’s old pal, Caravaggio. It visually recounts a key moment from the apocryphal Old Testament Book of Judith. Judith, a daring Jewish widow, who takes matters into her own hands to protect the Israelites from a marauding army of Assyrians, led by a fearsome general named Holofernes. Holofernes intended to kill the Israelites, and so, the night before the battle, Judith sneaks into the general’s tent and ingratiates herself to him, all while plying him with alcohol until he become so intoxicated that he falls asleep. And then— with the assistance of a handmaiden, Judith beheads Holofernes as he lays in his bed. When the Assyrian army discover the corpse of their general, the siege is called off and the army retreats— thereby ensuring the Israelites’ safety and Judith’s legend as a true Biblical hero and all-around badass.
It makes sense that Artemisia Gentileschi would find this such an intriguing subject matter for a painting. Angered by the fact that Tassi never faced true justice for his crimes against her and embarrassed and humiliated by the rigors of the trial in Rome, no one could blame her for wanting to exact a little wish-fulfillment via a safe Biblical tale. But Gentileschi’s final image was altogether shocking when it was first revealed, and shocking, even now, to modern-day viewers, because of a couple different reasons. But before we get into that, we need to describe how Judith was typically represented in visual art. For centuries, Judith was the epitome of the virtuous woman of god— the whole package. A gorgeous widow unwilling to sully herself with a second marriage, God forbid, and who cared far more about the well-being over her people and her faith over her own persona safety. In famous Judith depictions by Renaissance greats Sandro Botticelli and Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith is stylish and poised, and the only thing that really differentiates her from other women in each artist’s oeuvre is that she happens to have a severed head of a man either in her hands, or close by, as in the Botticelli work— something which sometimes causes art-historical confusion, as Salome, the New Testament temptress who requested John the Baptist’s head on a platter, is usually depicted fairly similarly, if not slightly sexier. Anyhow, the point is this: Judith = virtuous lady, doing the dirty work for God and the Greater Good.
And most of the time, the realities of the dirty work— i.e., the actual beheading of Holofernes— was really left off-screen, so to speak. You’d just have the aftermath, that severed head, as the evidence. But this changed with the dawn of the Baroque period in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Baroque art was all about action and drama: big contrasts between light and shadow, high emotion, big expression. Caravaggio himself was a master of this, and his Judith, from 1598, is one of the paintings that actually shows Judith in process of beheading the general, whose eyes are open in shock and mouth frozen in a scream as a spray of blood stains his pillow. But even here, Judith herself is all lithe and beautiful, approaching her job with a delicacy that is at odds with her actions. All you can see is this little teeny tiny wrinkle in her forehead as she commits her murder.
These are the traditional images of Judith that Artemisia inherited from art history, but she wasn’t about to take the opportunity to create just another bland and proper Judith. No— her heroine was one born from her own grief and anger. Her Judith is all fury and muscle. On the right side of the canvas, Artemisia paints Judith, clad in a golden gown, caught between the shadows and the action of beheading Holofernes on the bed in front of her., held down by an equally young and determined handmaiden. Judith’s dress slips down her left shoulder as crimson blood spurts from the neck of the slain general and it gets everywhere— staining the sheets, spraying Judith’s dress, and marring her hands as she holds the dagger tightly. What’s fascinating is that Judith’s face does not reflect the horror of the act: instead, it is purposeful. It’s focused. Her brow is furrowed, but with surety, not the delicate unease of Caravaggio’s Judith. Artemisia knows what she is doing, and why, and she’s all in, conquering the overwhelmingly large body of Holofernes, and soon to be victorious. For the first time, really, Judith is shown as an active, meaningful participant in the assassination story that made her a legend. And it ain’t easy. For any other Judith murder scene, including that of Caravaggio, Judith and her maid are usually shown at somewhat of a distance from Holofernes, leaning back or away and keeping themselves and their clothing pristine in the literal face of gore. But not Gentileschi’s women. Both Judith and her maid have their sleeves rolled up, muscles flexing, using their combined strength as much as Judith’s weapon to inflict the fatal blow. It’s gruesome. It’s more realistic. And at the time, it depiction of violence at the hands of women, as painted by a woman, was terrifying and, to many, just not okay.
As if this work wasn’t surprising and powerful enough, there’s another element that brings it to an even more fascinating level. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith has stood out to keen-eyed viewers and art historians throughout the years because she looks a little familiar. In fact, Judith bears a striking resemblance to the artist herself. Upon further inspection, Holofernes looks familiar too, as he also resembles a real live person. I basically don’t need to tell you who, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed: yep, Artemisia appears to have modeled her Holofernes upon the visage of Agostino Tassi, her rapist. Now, it is not unusual for artists—especially women— to use their own bodies as the model for female figures, given the fact that studying from the nude model was forbidden of women for most of Western History on into the Modern era. But by combining her image with that of Tassi is no accident, and it catapults her painting into being more than a painting: it becomes a form of autobiography. Under the guise of quote-unquote “safe” subject matter from the Bible as vetted by visual artists for centuries, Artemisia Gentileschi was able to work out her complicated feelings towards her past in a way that remarkably mirrors the Judith legend itself. Tassi, a powerful and wealthy male came to her and violently took her “honor”, similar to how Holofernes, a wealthy and powerful male came to Judith’s home and attempted to ransack the city.
And on canvas, at least, Artemisia is able to exact control over the outcome of this situation in a way that just wasn’t possible in real life. Remember her own testimony about the events of her attack, as she outlined during the trial. She rushed to a drawer, brandished a knife, and yelled to Tassi, quote, “I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonored me,” unquote. Tassi protected himself, and Artemisia ended her recounting with one simple statement: quote, “Otherwise, I might have killed him.” Unquote. Judith Slaying Holofernes represents a different ending for Artemisia Gentileschi—an ending that shows women as victorious over powerful men and justice being served. Artemisia’s attacker may not have served his sentence, but Artemisia was not going to let the world forget her abuse. She would not stay silent. And her bravery and dedication to making her voice heard loud and clear is still affecting to us today.
Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, we’re discussing the delayed shock and scorn around a...self-portrait? Indeed. And that’s coming up in two weeks-- don’t miss it.
Thank you for listening to the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, with additional writing and research help by Kelsey Breen. Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, our logo in by Dave Rainey at daveraineydesign.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
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Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in the shocking works of art history.